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Blog: Athens Acropolis revisited

In 2001, I visited the Athens Acropolis for the first time. I went on a Sunday morning. Entrance was free on that day of the week. I made no note of other visitors, only of being welcomed (or: slightly scared) by 2 stray dogs at the entrance gate. Last month I went back and witnessed what impact the surge in mass tourism has had: the entrance fee is now 20 EUR for this single site and you really have to coordinate your visit well to avoid queuing.

Erechteion in the early morning

I arrived at the gate at 7.50 am, 10 minutes before opening. This awarded me with spot #5 in the queue for the ticket office, where 5 people in a row just were getting started doing their repetitive work all day. This is not a kind of job that in Greece is replaced by machines quickly – although you can buy e-tickets. At 8 am the queue had grown to some 40 people. Two dogs also came over to have a look, probably not the same individuals that I encountered 17 years ago!

I was one of the first persons at the site that day and on my way up I even met the party of soldiers that hoist the national flag there each day. The Parthenon is a massive structure, still with scaffolding covering most of its interior. This has been the case for a long time and will go on until 2020 at least. The effect is that you can only walk around it. The other monuments on the plateau are not accessible either (except from the Propylaea via which you enter): this does take something away from the visiting experience.

Walking down via the South slopes you’ll pass more ruins with great historical value but which aren't the best remaining examples of their type that can be found in Greece. A fairly recent addition (re-placement) is one of the poet's statues that adorned the way to the Theater of Dionysus.

Columns of the Propylaea

The New Acropolis Museum lies just outside the South Gate, near the Theatre of Dionysus. It is an impressive modern building, the entrance costs a reasonable 5 EUR. There is a strict ‘No photography’ policy here, which came as a surprise as I was able to freely take pictures of about every single object in the excellent National Archaeological Museum of Athens the day before.

The Museum has 3 sloping floors of exhibits. The lower ones I found ‘more of the same’ after having visited the National Archaeological Museum. At the top floor they have a reconstruction of the full Parthenon frieze: “From the entire frieze that survives today, 50 meters are in the Acropolis Museum, 80 meters in the British Museum, one block in the Louvre, whilst other fragments are scattered in the museums of Palermo, the Vatican, Würzburg, Vienna, Munich and Copenhagen”, according to the museum’s website. What I liked best however are the 5 original remaining Caryatid statues that have been saved from the Erechteion. The 6th is in the British Museum. The ones now present at the Erechteion on the Acropolis are replicas.

Statue of a poet near Theater of Dionysus

I am a bit in doubt whether I should adjust my rating for this WHS. As a visiting experience the Athens Acropolis is somewhat disappointing – I found so this time and that was what I remembered from my previous visit as well. There’s no doubt about its universal value of course. I had rated it 4 stars before (an ‘8 out of 10’ in my own conversion table), a lower score already than given by the average community member. Somehow it feels less ‘grand’ than the Ancient Egyptian temples at Luxor for example, where you can freely roam around and much more is left in situ.

Published 17 October 2018

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Responses to Athens Acropolis revisited
Els Slots (17 October 2018)

If I remember well, there are large signs from the entrance gates on that photography is forbidden. But that may be geared only towards the first slope upwards, which is the Gallery of the Slopes - which per the website is excluded from the permission to photograph at all. Also, I saw a tourist being reprimanded taking a photo with his cell phone of one of the smaller objects in the glass boxes there (which hold similar objects as in the National Archaeological Museum, where photography is allowed).

So who knows, maybe photography is allowed at the large reconstructed Parthenon frieze at the top floor.

By the way, the official website also states: "Publication of photographs in print and electronic media is not allowed....)"


Solivagant (17 October 2018)

"The New Acropolis Museum ............. There is a strict ‘No photography’ policy here"
We visited in Oct 2015 and faced the same apparent "rule". In fact it was being so widely ignored that we ignored it too (albeit not too "openly"!).
However I note that the Acropolis Museum Web site states the policy as being -
"Photography: Photography without flash is permitted in all museum exhibition areas, excluding the Gallery of the Slopes and the Archaic Gallery" See - https://whyathens.com/the-acropolis-museum/
Who knows, perhaps it depends on how they feel on the day?


Blog: WHS #682: Daphni Monastery

The Monastery of Daphni is part of the WHS Monasteries of Daphni, Osios Loukas and Nea Moni. All these 3 medieval Greek monasteries contain gold-coloured mosaics that are valued as masterpieces of Byzantine art. The monastery of Daphni, located just outside Athens, is an easy one to access and that’s the one I choose for my visit too. It took about 45 minutes to see it all & even combined with a return trip from and to Athens city center it costs less than 2 hours of your time.

The main church

Together with a Russian couple that also wanted to visit Daphni, I left the city bus in a suburb of Athens. Many buses will stop near the monastery, see the official website for the range of bus lines. I used a one-day Ath.ena ticket to pay, it covers the metro rides as well. It was somewhat of a search for the entrance, but then we were faced with a heavily secured monument. Access is prevented by a large iron gate and a high fence that fully encircles the former monastery. Would it still be closed today (= Friday)? No: it turned out that you can ring a bell and then the gate will open automatically.

They have been restoring this world heritage since 1999. It is almost finished, but not yet completely - hence the limited opening times (Tuesdays and Fridays) and free entrance. Workers are busy still on the excavations outside of the main church. We were kindly welcomed though to have a look everywhere and take pictures. It all looks a bit 'new'.

From the outside, especially the windows of the church stand out. They are decorated like a kind of traffic light: 3 circles in a vertical row. The columns that carry the roof of the narthex are almost all replicas: Lord Elgin took the originals along with the frieze of the Parthenon to England, where they now catch dust in the cellars of the British Museum. One original Ionic column is still left: it was reused from the Apollo sanctuary that stood on this spot in Antiquity (and therefore qualifies as spolia I guess).

Mosaic of Christ in the dome

On the inside the church is very bright, both because of the use of white limestone and the many windows. Many gold-coloured mosaics can be found on the ceiling and on the upper parts of the walls. Lower to the ground, the walls have wall paintings of a later date.

The mosaics are the distinctive feature of this monastery church. They exclusively depict biblical scenes. The usual set of prophets, Mary with the child Jesus, the archangels, life and death of Christ and the life of Mary can be seen. There is an information panel in the church which explains which mosaic represents what scene.

The mosaics have a bright-golden background; the colour is so bright because it also incorporates glass. The makers of the mosaics probably came from Constantinople. It is unknown who the sponsors were of this richly decorated building.

Church interior with mosaics high on the walls

Since 1821, the monastery no longer has a religious function and from 1888 on it was in fact already a historical monument. Nowadays, certainly after the renovation is over, the delicate church is a fine destination for a short detour from the Athens monuments.

Published 13 October 2018

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Blog: WHS #681: Meteora

Meteora stands for a group of 7 monasteries built on high rock pillars, pillars which were created by erosion and earthquakes 60 million years ago. This is a really accessible tourist attraction (certainly a candidate for our ‘one million visitors or more’-connection, but I could not find details that confirm this) and much info on it is readily available. So I’ll just focus in this review on getting around by public transport and the enigma of the 7th monastery.

Monastery of the Holy Trinity

I stayed overnight for 3 nights in the town of Kastraki, which lies just in the foothills of the Meteora mountains. This proved to be an excellent choice; only for an ATM or bus connections to long distance destinations you have to walk 2km to the next city, Kalambaka. When the bus tourists are gone later on in the day, Kastraki is a cozy place with a few restaurants and always those beautiful views.

4 times a day (at 9/11/13/15h), a public bus starts from Kalambaka, stops at Kastraki (opposite to the church) and makes further stops at all monasteries. It is a normal public bus costwise at just 1.80 EUR one-way. But the company does send an English speaking guide along who takes care that everybody leaves the bus at the right monastery. Also, there is a 10 minute stop at a view point included. This all combined results in a journey of about 50 minutes for the 8km stretch from Kastraki to the furthest monastery, St. Stephen’s. From there, I walked back all the way down visiting 4 of the monasteries along the road.

Scenery

While preparing for the visit to this WHS, I noticed that there are 7 monasteries named at the map at the UNESCO website. This differs from the 6 that are generally mentioned in tourist literature and were also in my original introduction text on this website. However I found no precise location or more common name for this enigmatic ‘Monastery of the presentation of Jesus Christ’.

Coincidentally I joined a Meteora hiking tour on the second day of my stay in the area. This is a very recommendable hike of about 3h walking plus 1.5h visiting 2 monasteries, the Great Meteora and Ipapantis. I am now fairly sure that the monastery of Ipapantis is the 7th monastery that is meant in the nomination. It lies virtually at the back of the mountain of the Great Meteora and was a kind of annex to it: a smaller rock-cut setting where monks could retreat to from the busy Great Meteora monastery.

Ipapantis has only opened to tourists since last year. It lies somewhat off the main road and therefore is only accessible to hikers. It is not in religious use anymore and there also is no entrance fee. There is a caretaker though who shows you around. The monastery has been restored in the year 2000 and is in very good condition. The church is completely original and lovely. There was only space for 8 monks up here.

Monastery of Ipapantis

In general, I preferred Meteora's natural setting above its monasteries. Of course it was very clever that the old 'Meteorites' founded their churches and monasteries on these peaks – and all that without the access roads of today. But the monasteries are barely functioning as such anymore and their interiors most of the time aren’t worth the repeated 3 EUR entrance fee, except for a single church covered with murals such as at Rousanou.

Published 9 October 2018

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Responses to WHS #681: Meteora
Els Slots (9 October 2018)

Thanks Solivagant for both additions. I knew I could rely on you for fact checking!


Solivagant (9 October 2018)

"certainly a candidate for our ‘one million visitors or more’-connection, but I could not find details that confirm this)"
Indeed. This IUCN document (see "current threats") states "Large numbers of visitors, around two million per year, flood the site (conventional forms of tourism mainly, but also partly related to religious, cultural, eco-tourism, and sports tourism) (Lyratzaki, 2007)"
https://www.worldheritageoutlook.iucn.org/explore-sites/wdpaid/18862


Solivagant (9 October 2018)

"However I found no precise location or more common name for this enigmatic ‘Monastery of the presentation of Jesus Christ"
It is indeed "Ypapantis" (or "Hypapanti, Hypapante").
This is fairly common title for Churches in the Greek Orthodox tradition - "In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Presentation of Jesus at the temple is celebrated as one of the twelve Great Feasts, and is sometimes called Hypapante (Ὑπαπαντή, = "Meeting" in Greek). In Western Christianity, the additional name for the Service the day, Candlemas, is added. " (Wiki)


Blog: WHS #680: Philippi

Philippi – now part of Eastern mainland Greece - developed into a strategic provincial town under Roman rule and became an early centre of Christianity. Although its remains are not up to par with the great Ancient Greek sites such as Olympia or Delphi, I found it interesting enough. With its Roman and Christian roots it has a completely different background story than the other pure Greek WHS.

Relief at the theatre

I walked around the archaeological site at ease for more than 2 hours. It is a large area that consists of different sectors. The path from the eastern entrance first passes the theatre. This originally Greek theatre was transformed by the Romans into an arena for animal fights. Their descendants, the early Christians, wanted to have nothing to do with that. They put it out of use and let it perish. Nowadays it is again a recognizable theatre with rows of seats, where a theatre and music festival is held annually. Interesting reliefs and sculptures still adorn the outside of its walls.

Central to the site is an open square, the former Roman forum. Just like in the rest of Philippi there is not much of it left: the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 619, but it looks like it happened last week. All stones that have fallen are still lying on the ground. Only the contours of such structures as a row of shops can still be seen.

Prison of St. Paul

At the edge of the archaeological site there are two structures which are worth a look: the Octagon, an early Christian church with reasonably well-preserved mosaics. And the remains of a section of the Via Egnatia , a road built by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. The location on this road has brought Philippi many traders and pilgrims in Antiquity.

Biblical tours through this region also like to stop at Philippi. In the year 49 or 50, the apostle Paul is said to have christened the first European close to here – it was a local woman named Lydia. On his second missionary visit, he ran into a slave owner when he healed a slave from the evil eye and as a consequence she could no longer work as a fortune teller. So he was thrown in jail. A miracle follows “They and the other prisoners, however, are soon freed due to a miracle. An earthquake occurs that causes Paul's cell door to open and his bonds to loosen up. This not only happens to him but to ALL those within the prison.” (1) This prison cell is, according to reports or belief, still preserved and can be seen at the archaeological site.

Part of the Via Egnatia

A few practical notes to conclude: I left my (recommended) overnight stop of Kavala for Krinides (the modern town where these excavations are located) at 9 am. Buses seem to run every hour on the hour, also on Sundays. The return bus from Krinides leaves a bit past the half hour. At the Philippi Archaeological Site, I was the first visitor of the day and they did not have change from 20 EUR yet to pay for the 6 EUR entry fee – but fortunately they did have a credit card machine. When I finished my tour of the site I found the café-restaurant that lies next to it totally overrun with what seemed to be local visitors.

Published 6 October 2018

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Blog: WHS #679: Bursa

Together with Meteora, Bursa was the WHS I most looked forward to on my recent 2.5 week long trip through Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. And it certainly did not disappoint. I spent 2 nights in this city that has a very positive vibe; I actually walked all over the place for a day and a half as its WH locations are so scattered. It also has an impressive live call to prayer from the ‘competing’ mosques to wake up with ánd there are great food stalls.

Calligraphy at the Grand Mosque

My hotel in Bursa was just inside the Citadel, the ancient part of the city where the Byzantines had their center. When the Ottomans conquered the city in 1339 and set up a new civil and religious center, they did so away from these old city walls. From the Citadel though you have a good view of the Grand Mosque with its 20 domes and 2 minarets.

That Grand Mosque was also my first goal in the city. It was crowded with domestic visitors – both tourists and worshippers. This mosque has a very special layout: in the center, under a kind of atrium covered with a glass dome, is a large fountain for ablutions. Around it there are niches to which believers can withdraw. Most striking feature of this mosque though are the large texts on its walls - 192 prayers and slogans have been done in calligraphy by 41 artists.

The mosque is part of the Orhan Ghazi Kulliye, a complex that included a religious school, community kitchen, bathhouse and commercial buildings. These last buildings have now been transformed into a bazaar - especially the former silk fair is an attractive building. Here, too, it is crowded with people enjoying the terraces for food and drinks.

Green Tomb

The next morning I went to one of the other locations: the Yesil (Mehmed I) Kulliye. It lies on the other side of the river, a half an hour walk. This complex also consists of a number of buildings that belong together. The most important are the Green Mosque and the Green Tomb. The Tomb includes the mausoleum of Mehmed I, the 5th Ottoman sultan. It is not green, but blue with turquoise - very beautiful.

Opposite the Tomb is the Green Mosque. This has some green tiles on its interior. It was built in a totally different style than the Grand Mosque where I went yesterday. It feels more intimate, almost Persian with the many tiles and the gold-with-blue elaborate muqarnas.

Towards the end of the morning I prepared for the trip to a third location: the village of Cumalikizik. It should be possible to get there on bus 22, but I could not find its departure point. The public transport app on my phone showed that you can also get there by metro, so I went for that option. The Bursa metro looks very new and is as efficient as you would expect from a metro. In about 20 minutes I arrived at the station of Cumalikizik. The village however is still half an hour walk away. Fortunately, all minibuses are passing by with that destination, so for 30 cents I got dropped off at the central square.

Cumalikizik is a farming village that stems from the same early beginnings of the Ottoman Empire as the monuments in Bursa. This village, together with many others that no longer exist in their original state, provided food to the city and its new rulers. It turned out to be super crowded in its narrow streets. Even a bus with Chinese tourists had managed to find the village. The only thing you can really do here is walk up one road, covered with treacherous uneven stones, and another one back again. The colourful, sometimes dilapidated houses are photogenic though.

Streets of Cumalikizik

A day or so after my visit I read a Turkish news article in which an official proclaimed that “Turkey has not enough WHS”. I was a bit sceptical about this act of patriotism at first – but looking at the ratings of the Turkish WHS on this website, I noticed that they have only 2 sites on 3 stars and nothing lower than that. At 3.5, Bursa ranks the 4th lowest among the 18 WHS. But it is a lovely off-the-beaten track destination to visit. So yes, there is room for more Turkish WHS!

Published 29 September 2018

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Blog: Istanbul revisited

Between the 5 new WHS in north-eastern Bulgaria and the next one in Bursa (Asiatic Turkey), I had planned a full day to spend in Istanbul. I had been in this city once before: that was already in 1992 during my aptly named All Turkey Tour. So I gave myself a leisurely program this time, including only a few sights not too far from my hotel. I skipped the biggest crowd magnets such as the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace and I also entered places selectively.

Paşakapısı

My first stop was the Sirkeci train station. This used to be the final destination of the Orient Express, the train that travelled from London to Istanbul in some form between 1883 and 1977. The old station has been preserved as a monument, next to it lies a new station that is in full use. The abandoned station is now ‘owned’ by stray dogs and cats. I found one cat even entrenched on the dashboard of an old locomotive and another one sleeping on a table in the railway museum. Nevertheless, the building is well maintained and the stained-glass windows in the waiting areas are still beautiful.

Walking towards the most historic part of the city of Istanbul, you encounter a historic building every 100 meters or so. Each of these are explained by a handy column with information in 3 languages. One example is Paşakapısı, the gate of the Pasha. This beautiful entrance from 1799 led to the palace of the Ottoman Grand Vizier, who welcomed his foreign visitors there.

A little further on I found myself at what was the Hippodrome in Roman times. Now this is a large square, with the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque located on either side - making it the most touristic place in the city. For the sake of security, Turkish authorities have positioned an army tank there and the square is also screened off with fences. The former racecourse is known for its three narrow, high pillars or obelisks: one made by the Romans, one taken from Egypt and one bronze monument (the Serpentine Column) that has been here since Roman times.

Hagia Sophia

Afterwards I walked to the northwest for about 20 minutes, to yet another monumental mosque: the 16th century Süleymaniye mosque. This is perhaps the most beautiful among the hundreds of Istanbul mosques. You can sit down in the large garden, with both good views over the city and at the building itself. Here I did enter, the access is free. They were busy with preparations for the prayer that was to start in 45 minutes: 2 men were vacuuming the whole carpet. Unfortunately, as a visitor you have to stay at the edge of the main area and not everything is well visible because of the many wires that keep a huge chandelier in the air.

After a simple but tasty lunch at the Bazaar, my first goal of the afternoon was the Rustem Pasha mosque. This work of Sinan is decorated with beautiful glazed tiles. It is wedged in by the Bazaar and I had a hard time finding the entrance. However, it turned out that it is closed for restoration. When you look at it from a distance, you can understand why.

Rustem Pasha mosque seen from Galata Bridge

I finally ended up near the Galata bridge, which spans the Golden Horn and forms the connection between the European and Asian part of Istanbul. At the other end of the bridge lies the characteristic Galata tower, built in the 14th century by the Republic of Genoa. The bridge is also easy for pedestrians to cross. I walked all the way to the other side, in the meantime passing dozens of fishermen. In Galata I ended my sightseeing day at a luxurious coffee shop for a cappuccino with pastries.

Published 26 September 2018

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Responses to Istanbul revisited
Michael Novins (27 September 2018)

Thanks Els, I made the easy day trip today from Istanbul to Bursa. Glad I did so, but found the food (halva and Iskender kabob) better than the sites.


Els Slots (26 September 2018)

Hi Michael, I loved Bursa and I think it deserves at least a full day (I stayed for 2 nights). It's a very atmospheric place and the sights are spread out as well. All depends of course whether you are a fast traveler (I am not so much). Review will be published this Saturday!


Michael Novins (26 September 2018)

Hi Els, coincidentally I flew this morning to Istanbul from Sochi, after spending a few days in Abkhazia, and likewise wandered over to Sirkeci station, where I’m now having a coffee in the exquisite station restaurant and using their WiFi. I only have one more full day, and I haven’t been able to get too excited about the possibility of a long day trip to Bursa. I have several more hours to research and decide. Do you think it’s worth six hours of travel? I could also “save” Bursa for a longer trip to Turkey, when I wouldn’t need to backtrack. Thanks


Blog: WHS #678: Nessebar

In the Ancient City of Nessebar, several successive civilizations have left their mark over a period of 3000 years. It started with the local Thracians, followed by the Greeks, the Romans and their eastern successors the Byzantines who made it into a Christian spiritual center in the Middle Ages. Not much of substance has been written in reviews so far about this little Bulgarian town, which is threatened by its proximity to the resort of Sunny Beach (the name says it all…) and overrun by day trippers of the worst kind especially in summer.

Church of Saint Paraskevi

Nessebar’s attraction nowadays lies mostly with its Byzantine churches - there is virtually nothing left of the other periods of his existence. It reminded me a bit of Ohrid in Macedonia, a small town with Byzantine churches dotted here and there amidst souvenir shops and restaurants. None of the old churches in Nessebar are in religious use anymore however (they are either ‘museums’ or ruins), while there is still some (albeit limited) religious feel to Ohrid.

You can buy different combination tickets to visit the various museums and churches in the town. I took one of 18 Lev (9 EUR), with which you can enter the archaeological museum, the St. Stephen Church and 3 other churches of your own choice. I started my tour at the archaeological museum, which lies right after the city wall when you enter the peninsula. There was hardly anyone there. They display here mainly relics from the Greek and Roman periods of the city - Nessebar was a colony of both. It’s an interesting enough start, but I found no memorable objects amidst the collection.

Walking further onto the peninsula, the first large church that you encounter is that of St. Stephen. This is the absolute highlight in terms of murals in Nessebar; the walls are completely covered with 258 different representations. There is almost no empty space left. After a French group with their guide left the church (it took some waiting before they finished occupying the space), I was also the only visitor here for a while and could admire the paintings one by one.

Interior of St. Stephen's

Most churches in Nessebar are not known for their interior wall paintings but for creative wall decorations on their exteriors: bricks have been arranged in patterns between the gray stone. Colourful pieces of ceramics are also added for additional decoration. The Church of Saint Paraskevi is the best example of this.

On my last morning I walked a full lap of the peninsula along the waterfront. Even if you walk slowly, this takes less than an hour. On the south side lies another of the most beautiful churches - the Church of Saint John Aliturgetos. This was heavily damaged by an earthquake, but is now being restored with money from the US Ambassadors Fund. The brick patterns are especially beautiful here.

Stone decoration at Church of St. John Aliturgetos

I stayed in Nessebar for one night, which was just enough for me. Early in the morning is actually the only time of day that Nessebar is not flooded with tourists. I had a pleasant evening as well, sitting on my balcony at the Nessebar Royal Palace hotel with a view of the beautifully lit Church of Saint John the Baptist next door.

Published 22 September 2018

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Blog: WHS #677: Srebarna

In advance we had a lot of fun with the inclusion of Srebarna on the itinerary of our 2018 WH meetup. At that time it was the worst rated WHS on our website. Would we be able to collectively raise the score after our visit? Srebarna is a freshwater lake that is an important breeding, transit and wintering place for waterfowl. The lake was originally connected to the nearby Danube - now the two are only connected via a channel. The protected area measures only 6 square kilometers. 75% of it is covered with reeds and other marsh plants.

View of the lake from the visitor center area

During the preparations, I had tried to arrange a serious birding guide to show us around - but the few English speaking ones I was able to track down were guiding elsewhere (even up to Sofia, perhaps a telling sign). Fortunately we had with us Peter, a fellow world heritage traveller who is also a keen birder. He even had prepared a presentation for us. Through this we became acquainted with the 4 most special birds of this area, that lies on the migratory route along the Black Sea: the Dalmatian pelican, the pygmy cormorant, the glossy ibis and the spoonbill.

From the visitor center we first walked down towards the lake. At least, 'in the direction of': around the lake there is a dirt road that you can also drive by car. The trees and shrubs that separate the road from the shore have grown so high that the lake isn’t visible. At a few spots they have made a lookout point, but even there you are still so far away from the lake that you have to have very good binoculars to observe something on the water. Needless to say – we did not see any birds.

Some maintenance issues

We carried on following the main road to lookout number 3 - quite an excercise in the hot sun. From there, having seen nothing again, we turned back through the bushes via what once seems to have been a trail. Tree branches regularly block the passage and the grass has grown high. The picnic benches along the route are gradually becoming overgrown with plants.

It got better when we followed an arrow with something like 'eco-nature trail' painted on it. This brought us to a higher area, from where there is a good overview of the lake. Here you should be able to see the colonies of Dalmatian pelicans. However, we mainly saw swans and ducks (of the kind that you see every day in the Netherlands). Fortunately, at the end we still discovered a highlight on a reed island: a cormorant, which according to our birdwatcher could only be a pygmy cormorant. A 'special' species ticked off after all!

A cormorant and a duck

A day later, part of our group visited the Danube Delta about 230 km across the border in Romania (I was already there in 2010). Videos of dozens of Dalmatian pelicans taking off from the river flooded our whatsapp group. Without any effort they saw all the species that should also be in Srebarna. The Romanian site was listed 8 years after Srebarna, but shows a so much better example of wetland ecosystems in this part of the world that having allowed Srebarna to become world heritage should actually be considered a mistake.

Published 19 September 2018

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Responses to WHS #677: Srebarna
Esteban Cervantes Jiménez (21 September 2018)

I have always said it. In my country there are protected areas that are far better than Srebarna on wetland habitats and waterfowl and that have never even been on a T list. And as you said, in the European context there are also far better sites.


Blog: WHS #676: Churches of Ivanovo

After an overnight stay in the pleasant border town of Ruse, located at the Danube and connected to Romania by a bridge, the WH Travellers community went into the countryside via inland roads. We entered the Roussensky Lom national park, which is on Bulgaria's Tentative List. The official description of it has only 2 sentences: it is a "unique combination of natural beauty and cultural elements" and it is home to endangered birds of prey such as falcon, vulture and buzzard. Maybe they should work on that OUV statement a bit more…

The entrance

What is special is that there is already a WHS in the park: the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo. That is our main goal of this morning. The Rock Churches comprise a complex of former monasteries, churches, cells and chapels, carved out of the rock by monks during the 13th and 14th centuries. The interior walls are covered with murals, which are regarded as special examples of medieval Christian art from this region.

To visit you pass through a forest via a gradually sloping path. Along the way there are beautiful views over the nature reserve and I found it wonderful to walk here in the glorious weather.

The only accessible rock church can already be recognized from a distance by its wooden extension. This seems to protect visitors from falling out of the cave chapel from a great altitude. The church itself has been roughly cut out of the rocks, perhaps it’s a widening of a natural cave. The monks used to climb in via a rope ladder along the 38-meter-high, steep cliff. Nowadays at the end of the walking path there is a narrow opening in the rock through which you can step inside.

A Last Supper

The ticket seller / guide at the door wanted to write down our nationalities - "for visitor statistics". We start to enumerate enthusiastically: Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Scotland ... He quickly gave up and just wrote 'international group'. He did give us 1 Lev per person group discount though.

We all just fitted in the interior of the rock church - that's how small it is. That in addition to a woman who sits there all day to sell souvenirs such as fridge magnets. The guide gave us a short explanation of the murals and said that the other rock churches in the area are too unsafe/unstable to let visitors in. The quality of the murals is also less good: the ones in the main church were extensively restored between 1983 and 2002. The ceilings and part of the walls are painted with biblical scenes. Especially the ceilings must have been heavy work. They are low but very uneven.

Holy man

In all it's pretty nice, but as with many of the other Bulgarian sites one wonders: it's so small and how special is it anyway (artistically or otherwise)? It was placed on the List in 1979 at the same time as 3 other small Bulgarian WHS. This already in the second year after UNESCO started the World Heritage List. So Bulgaria was very early and the rules about OUV and management were not as strict as they are now.

Published 15 September 2018

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Blog: WHS #675: Tomb of Sveshtari

The 3rd century BC Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari is a richly decorated tomb with a unique architectural decor. It was the second WHS that we visited during the 2018 WH Travellers Meeting. In advance I had tried to make a reservation for our group of 15 - I had read that sometimes you have to wait a while at the site before a guide is available. The e-mail contact in English with the visitor center proved to be rather inconclusive (similar to my experiences with other agencies in Bulgaria). When we arrived at 3 o'clock though we were expected and welcomed by an English speaking guide.

Burial mound

The tomb is located underground, under a 11 meter high burial mound. One can only enter it on a guided tour. The 'long' tour (along the inscribed site and 2 other tombs) costs 15 Lev (7.50 EUR). We had to wait until another group left the tomb – there’s not enough space for many visitors at the same time.

Many burial mounds have been discovered in this area, but most are empty. Near the adequately equipped visitor center there are 3: the great burial mound of the king and his wife, plus two smaller burial mounds in which groups of aristocrats were buried. A footpath connects them.

The large tomb is protected as if it were a Swiss bank vault. After entering a pin code, the guide opened the two sturdy automatic sliding doors that have been placed in the entrance quite recently. This gave access to the burial mound, but not yet to the tomb. First we entered a room containing a small photo exhibition. There we also needed to put plastic protective covers over our shoes.

Entrance to the main burial mound

The original tomb made out of stone blocks has been cleared of sand and lies now in an open space within the shell of the mound. The tomb, which is over 7 meters long and 4 meters high, has a porch, two 'rooms' and the actual grave. You can enter until the doorway of the grave itself. There you see two stone benches, on which the corpses of the king and his wife were found. Around them, sculptures of 10 female figures ‘carry’ the roof of the tomb.

The famous original colour scheme, “in ocher, brown, blue, red and lilac”, is hard to distinguish; I found the interior and the sculptures dazzling white thanks to the limestone that was used. Unfortunately you only get a few minutes inside before a kind of alarm goes off. You're also not allowed to take pictures.

WH Travellers leaving tomb #2

The guide also lead us to the other two tombs on the site. Several skeletons have been found here, probably members of noble families. Interestingly, these tombs were screened off by a heavy stone sliding door, so that the tomb remained open and deceased people could be added in several stages. In the porch of one of these tombs also the remains of a dog were found. All these graves are less well preserved than the great king's grave and they are also not decorated. The tour in total lasted for 45 minutes, but the highlight took about 30 seconds.

Published 12 September 2018

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